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Trainspotting is one of the quintessential British films from the ’90s, a stylish cult movie that launched the careers of its director Danny Boyle and many of its actors. Now after 21-years, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie return for a sequel – so now is the time to look at the British classic.
Based on a novel by Irvine Walsh, Trainspotting follows a group of friends in the Scottish capital who are addicted to something: either heroin, violence or fitness. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) acts as the unreliable narrator, a heroin addict who with his friends enjoy thieving, fighting and fucking. Over the course of the movie Renton weans himself off drugs and relapses, unwittingly has a sexual relationship with an underage girl and looks to screw over his friends.
Trainspotting has one of the most iconic openings in British film history as Renton gets chased by police down Princes Street in Edinburgh as he narrates and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” plays in the background. It sets the tone of being an energetic, breezy dark comedy that has one terrific soundtrack. There are good reasons why it’s considered a cult classic.
Back when the film was originally met with controversy – because critics said it glamorized heroin addiction. This is a viewpoint only held by people by who hadn’t seen the film: one of the earliest scenes has a man crawling into a toilet to retrieve a suppository, see people get arrested and people even die because of the addiction. Characters are chasing a high but their reality is one of squalor. There was certainly no glamor in their lives.
Boyle’s approach towards directing Trainspotting was one of bravado, which was necessary to tackle this sort of material. Trainspotting was filled with iconic scenes: besides the aforementioned opening and toilet scene, there was the soccer scene that introduced the memorable characters, the night of seduction, the friends going into the Highlands and Renton’s intense withdrawal scene. Boyle worked with a great team, having director of photography Brian Tufano and editor Masahiro Hirakubo who he had previously worked with on his debut Shallow Grave and his follow-up The Beach. Despite the dark subject matter Boyle and Tufano made Trainspotting visually bright and distinctive and Hirakubo’s quick cutting editing style gave Trainspotting a kinetic energy – the most notable scenes were the three characters simultaneous sexual encounters and Renton’s withdrawal sequence.
Trainspotting has similarities to A Clockwork Orange: both movies are dark comedies focusing on an unlikable yet articulate character who are only interested in their own gratification. McGregor’s Renton was influenced by Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, both acting as the narrators of their lives of hedonism. Although Renton has slightly more morality than Alex: Renton was horrified when he found that girl he slept with was underage. Boyle was aware of this connection and Trainspotting does have some ’70s references: the Edinburgh nightclub looked like Korova Milkbar in A Clockwork Orange, minus the erotic statues and in the ladies bathroom there is a cardboard standee of Jodie Foster in her role in Taxi Driver. The fight in a bar near the end of the movie has a similarity to movies from the ’70s with the way the hits were shot and the blood came out of the victim of Begbie’s (Robert Carlyle) outburst.
Trainspotting was a movie that gave many major Scottish actors early roles. Apart from McGregor his co-stars Ewan Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd and Kelly Macdonald have had successful careers, as well as Jonny Lee Miller – the only English actor in a major role. The male members of the cast were given great characters to work with: Miller’s Sick Boy was cut from the same cloth as Renton, Carlyle was volatile as Begbie, – a man you wouldn’t want to cross – while McKidd and Bremner were the more sympathetic as the sporty Tommy whose life Renton inadvertently ruined and Spud, the dorky member of the group. Even Peter Mullan and Shirley Henderson in minor roles as a showy drug dealer and Spud’s girlfriend began prolific careers after Trainspotting.
What makes Trainspotting even more remarkable was it was highly compelling despite its lack of narrative. Irvine Welsh’s novels and short stories are difficult to adapt: Ecstasy acts as a sad reminder that not all of Walsh’s works can make great films. Trainspotting is really a collection of stories about the character’s lives on heroin, recovering and relapsing and their relationships with Renton as the focal point. By the third act, the movie shifts gears to become a crime story when Renton moves to London to have a normal life with his old Scottish crew coming down to rope him into a big drug deal.
The other big feature of Trainspotting was its soundtrack – containing songs from Iggy Pop, Pulp, New Order and Underground. Some songs like “Lust for Life” and “Born Slippy” are associated with the film. The most powerful use of music was the use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” after Renton overdoses and his dealer dumps him in a taxi. It was a tragic sequence and it helped to associate the Lou Reed song to being a drugs references.
Trainspotting deserves its reputation as a British classic coming at a time when the British film industry was being revitalized: it was followed by hits like The Full Monty and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It was a great symbol of the ’90s Cool Britannia movement.